A Publication of WTVP

Surely Dr. Kay Royster, the new District 150 superintendent, had no illusions about what she was getting into when she took the leadership job. But given the array of problems central Illinois’ largest school district faces, you have to wonder: what is it that she knows? 

For certain, Dr. Royster knows about the district’s finances. Only a couple of years ago, it was criticized for its $50 million rainy day fund. Now it looks like the fund will be exhausted soon. This year’s deficit hovers around $9 million, but it could get worse depending on how much Springfield shorts public schools. 

Student test scores lag behind statewide averages, and dropout rates top them. Twelve schools are on the state academic warning list. The district is losing students— from nearly 25,000 to today’s 15,000—as more mobile families opt for outlying communities. 

As Royster is well aware, the district and its board have undergone a historic personnel changeover. Besides outgoing Superintendent John Garrett, whom Royster replaced, the district lost three of its four assistant superintendents, its controller/treasurer, and two well-respected board members. The accumulated experience represented by those individuals is immeasurable, and some fear this amounts to a leadership vacuum. 

As if that isn’t enough, a study recently commissioned by the Illinois Workforce Development Board questions whether local schools are capable of developing quality workers the region needs to be economically viable. 

All this is common knowledge, so what does Royster know? We have to hope she knows the special qualities strong leaders bring to difficult situations. 

For one thing, leaders keep their heads when others are losing them. District 150 and its board have tried through the years to be innovative, and they need to continue building on the success of Edison schools, special academies at the high schools, Roosevelt Magnet School for the Performing Arts, the International Baccalaureate program at Richwoods…the list goes on. Good ideas. Of course, they all cost money. 

Leaders turn problems into opportunities. The exodus of administrators at District 150 may at first seem to be a crisis. But it also offers Royster a chance to staff up with qualified leaders who share her vision for the district. Can she attract quality people to what some characterize as a “failing” school system? It will be hard work, but it’s doable for a strong leader. And it does appear Royster has the ability to communicate and inspire. 

Leaders make the tough decisions and develop the consensus that allows them to stand. One case in point: District 150 doesn’t have the right size schools in the right places. A network built for 25,000 students can’t possibly be efficient with 15,000. The financial consequences of not standing up to partisans for certain schools are burdensome. Some schools will close. In exchange, enhanced curriculums and other offerings will make up the loss for district students. 

Capable leaders generate a climate for involvement and the emergence of new leaders. District 150’s recent community summit judged parental involvement the top issue facing local public schools. Hard to argue with that. The question, as many have noted, is really how to spur parental and community involvement. The 2000 census reported 2.4 million grandparents are responsible for the primary caregiving of their grandchildren—but do they have the time, energy, and inclination to be an active volunteer and mentor to their grandchild’s school and education? 

District 150 sent a message that it will be more open to public input than might have been the case in the past. There are plenty of ways for parents, other citizens, and local businesses to get involved. 

Consider what’s at stake. There’s no more critical challenge facing this region than the fate of District 150. Any margin for error is long gone. Royster’s performance will set off a chain reaction for the district, with either very good or very bad consequences. Part of the responsibility lies with the leader, part with us. 

Nearly 40 years ago, in remarks prepared for his address in Dallas, President John F. Kennedy observed, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” To which we might add: And both are indispensable to the future of District 150, and ultimately to the future of central Illinois. IBI